Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.
THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE
Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.
Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.
I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):
Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.
This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.
The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.
As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.
The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.
Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.
“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”
Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:
At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.
“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”
This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”
“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.
“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”
“How quaint,” Ann observed.
Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”
Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”
“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.
I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.
“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.
“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.
The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”
On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.
“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.
“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.
They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.
With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”
“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the main huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”
“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”
“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”
“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”
Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”
The ranking marine, a sergeant who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the sergeant barked into his crackling radio.
“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”
“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.
“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”
Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.
That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.
Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.
A brief meeting with a young frenchman:
He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.
After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.
“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”
The embassy compound in Niger:
The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.
That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.
A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:
The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”
Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”
But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”
Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:
It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars and an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.
Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.
One last, unambiguous, metaphor:
The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.
That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.
So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.
“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.
Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.
More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:
The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.
The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.
A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.
Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.
A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.
And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.
This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.
It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.
For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.
In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.
The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.
Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:
Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.
Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.
I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.
Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:
I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.
“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.
“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.
“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.
This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:
Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.
She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and could explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.
This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:
“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”
“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.
Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.
This is Ann:
One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toward Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”
“Liberté!” Ann yelled.
This is Rachel:
“No!” Rat finally exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”
I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.
The German shrugged.
“C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.
C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?
Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:
“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]
She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.
Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.
Here is Ann with the gazelle:
Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snout.
“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”
Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”
That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.
Here is Rachel with the dog:
She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.
She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.
“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.
“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”
“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be quarantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”
They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.
It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.
That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.
In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:
“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.
I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.
“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interested in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”
In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:
“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.
“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”
[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”
“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”
A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbablility of the whole venture:
“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.
Alarms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.
“He is a friend?”
I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”
A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”
“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.
“Let me understand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”
It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”
“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”
The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”
I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”
A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.
“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.
“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.
“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”
Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.
A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.
“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.
This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.
False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:
Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.
These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.
These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.
The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.
The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.
Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.
The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.
Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.
I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.
It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.
Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.
The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Knepper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.
“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.
“Half a million Central African francs.”
It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.
Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.
It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.
After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.
“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.
“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”
This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”
“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”
We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.
The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.
However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.
A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.
Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.
This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.
The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.
After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:
I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.
19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.
A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.
Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.
Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.
We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.
It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.
Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.
The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.
“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”
That was almost two hundred dollars.
Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.
In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.
“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”
It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.
“Fifty thousand CFA.”
That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.
Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.
I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.
I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.
As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.
I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.
Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.
What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds.
What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?
There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:
Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.
Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:
Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.
But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.
The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.
All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?
That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:
Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.
“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”
This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.
One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.
On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.
Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.
Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he beieved.
The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.
There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.
Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.
I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.
A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams
I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.
Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.
A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.
Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)
All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.
Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.
The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.
The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.
(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)